Kneehigh Theatre to debut at the Annenberg with 'Brief Encounter'

 Kneehigh Theatre to debut at the Annenberg with 'Brief Encounter'
Emma Rice is the joint artistic director for the Kneehigh Theatre Company in London. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times)

Emma Rice first staged "Noel Coward's Brief Encounter," a fantasia based on the 1945 David Lean movie of a Coward one-act play, more than six years ago, yet even as the play has gone on to tour the world, she has never stopped working on it.

"I think there's a fairy dust on a deep level for 'Brief Encounter.' It's continued to develop and grow and become more of itself, which I think is rare," said Rice, the artistic director of Kneehigh Theatre, the small troupe from Cornwall with a major international profile.

The company is finally making its L.A. debut Wednesday at the Wallis Annenberg Center with the revival of a show that opened in London in 2008 and moved to Broadway in 2010.


"Brief Encounter" employs a mix of video images and old-fashioned stagecraft, but one trademark of Rice's is her use of music — not just in underscoring the action or articulating the feel of its characters, but because usually the actors in Kneehigh productions also serve as musicians.

"In rehearsal and in the creation of work, I try really hard to make sure there's enough oxygen around the process for surprise to occur," said Rice, who is also the creator of the production, at a recent rehearsal. "Music is brilliant for that.

"If you create an environment where there are instruments all around you," Rice explained, "people naturally start to sing and make music. It's a collective act, there's a collective chemistry that happens."

The Times' theater critic, Charles McNulty, reviewed "Brief Encounter" in 2009 when it was done at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. He said it "pays homage to the movie by translating the romantic fable into a playfully eccentric language that fuses theater, music and film in a most delightfully populist fashion."

On hand to oversee this revival in Beverly Hills and visiting Southern California for the first time, the 47-year-old Rice sported a shock of peroxide-blond hair and colorful "trainers." She personally oversees every rehearsal.

"One song is gone all together, a song called 'Put Out My Shooting Suit' [that] was in the original. Then I swapped it out for another Noel Coward song called 'World Weary' when it first went on tour," she said. "But I couldn't make it work, so I kept looking for new songs."

Then she decided " 'Oh, there shouldn't be a song here.' So that's gone altogether. And also another character used to sing 'Alice Is at It Again,' and now he sings 'Mad About the Boy.' "

Some of the actors in this L.A. revival were in the original production that opened in London in a converted movie theater in 2008, and some in the cast toured the work in Australia last year.

Rice will stay in L.A. working with the cast until opening night, she said, "then I'm taking three days holiday to see the Big Sur."

The day of the interview was Rice's third day in town. "The weather is fabulous, given that it's flooding and storming in England. All the food I've had has been great, and the dogs all wear clothes — that's what I've noticed. I saw a dog in a parka, which is one of those hooded ones with the fur on it, and I saw one of those and I was like, 'This dog could die in that hot coat.' "

Surprisingly, given the number of celebrated British theater directors who go on to make films — Sam Mendes, Nicholas Hytner, Phyllida Lloyd — Rice says she has never been asked to make a movie. She insisted the only plans she has in Hollywood are as a tourist.

"We're trying to plan a trip to go around one of the studios — and somebody's told me we might get in a golf buggy for the tour, and I couldn't be happier if that happens. Can you imagine two pleasures in one, a golf buggy and a film studio? That's like Christmas."

Rice said she loves movies, but "the reality is I have millions of ideas about theater. The phrase is 'the willing suspension of disbelief,' which means we as a temporary community come in to a theater, and the actors say 'we will this to happen,' and the audience says, 'we believe what you want us to believe,' and that doesn't happen in film.

"Film is a fact, what you see doesn't change," she said. "I cherish film, but I don't think there's that meeting place."

Next for Rice is collaboration with Berkeley Repertory Theater involving a cabaret artist named Meow Meow, who the director worked with in 2011 on a stage adaptation of the film "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." Then it's back to Cornwall for a new piece with Kneehigh later this summer.

Some directors don't enjoy supervising revivals, but in the rehearsal rooms beneath the Wallis stage, Rice seemed as excited about the process as before her Broadway debut in 2010.

She emphasized that the handcrafted feel of Kneehigh's productions are what appeals to audiences and keeps her interested: "I would say that it's pretty settled now, the show is, although the girls have just worked out a new, very funny routine with the tea pot this morning. No one's seen it before.

"We don't create product," Rice added. "It's not like we have say, 'It's done.' Which I have to say, on Broadway, was a challenge because they literally call it 'freezing the show.' They say, 'This is when the show is frozen.' Now that is an impossibility — in life, in art, and certainly in Kneehigh. Nothing freezes."


'Noel Coward's Brief Encounter'

Where: 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: Through March 23. Tues-Fri 8 p.m. Sat 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.Sunday 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Tickets: $59-$129

Contact: (310) 746-4000 or